Few Americans have many interactions with real-life Sherpas (except, perhaps, if you shop for outdoor gear at the Tent & Trails store in Manhattan, where an experienced Sherpa guide named Serap Jangbu works, as revealed in a fascinating Deadspin profile). Despite that lack of familiarity—or perhaps because of it—the word sherpa has become a trendy word in business circles for people marketing themselves as experienced guides of various kinds. As Vickie Elmer wrote for Quartz in 2013, the corporate world now has “strategy sherpas,” “ideas sherpas,” “Human Resources Sherpas,” “startup sherpas,” and “social media sherpas.” “What sounds unusual or noteworthy to consultants and coaches,” Elmer writes, “sounds disrespectful to some Sherpas who object to their heritage being appropriated as a branding tool or title.”
All the young foodies want to be “food sherpas.”
Something similar has happened to the word guru, as I discussed in a recent installment of the NPR podcast Code Switch. What began as a Sanskrit-based term for a respected spiritual teacher became applied to anyone with a modicum of expertise. That semantic broadening started in the mid- to late-’60s, when Eastern spiritual practices got embraced by the counterculture, and figures like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—the guru to the Beatles—achieved cultural prominence.
Tom Wolfe, who provided so many additions to the English lexicon, got the ball rolling with this more expansive use of guru. In a 1965 profile of Marshall McLuhan in the New York Herald Tribune, Wolfe called the media-studies pioneer a “pop Guru.” McLuhan, a charismatic speaker given to oracular pronouncements, struck many as having guru-like qualities, and he’d later be dubbed a “communications guru” and a “multi-media guru.” McLuhan’s friend Timothy Leary, meanwhile, was called a “psychedelic guru” in 1966, thanks to his advocacy of LSD.
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Guru crossed over to the more straitlaced business world, with the prominent consultant Peter Drucker being called a “management guru” as early as 1969. Drucker didn’t much care for the guru label, later saying, “I have been saying for many years that we are using the word guru only because charlatan is too long to fit into a headline.”
Guru, like sherpa, has become largely disconnected from its cultural origins, now simply serving as a trendy label for an expert. The branding expert Nancy Friedman, writing for Visual Thesaurus in 2013, noted that yet another term from an Asian language, ninja, had joined guru and sherpa in the “competition to come up with creative job titles.” Ninja has its own exotic air from pop-culture portrayals of feudal Japan. And speaking of Japanese, the Supreme Court confirmation process that requires a sherpa is often described as kabuki, as I wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal.
While American use of these terms often goes unnoticed, it’s worth taking a moment to think about exactly how such lexical borrowings from Asian languages often represent a facile kind of cultural appropriation, used as a kind of shorthand latent with stereotypes about the inscrutable East. It may look good on a LinkedIn profile, but you might want to think twice about calling yourself a sherpa, guru, or ninja just to add a dash of exoticism.